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By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - China should abolish secretive "black jails" used to hold aggrieved citizens, an international human rights group said on Thursday, launching a push to end the shadowy detentions days before President Barack Obama visits.
The "black jails," as they are called by many who have been held in them, are informal detention centres used to lock up petitioners bringing complaints to Beijing and other Chinese cities. China denies the existence of such facilities.
The jails become most crowded at politically sensitive times, such as during big meetings and visits, when the ruling Communist Party wants to show the national capital at its most orderly, activists say.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch said these detention sites were driven by coercion and commerce, with officials and hired guards holding petitioners in squalid, sometimes brutal confinement without legal oversight, often in return for cash.
"I think it shows a lot about the Chinese government not necessarily being interested in defending the downtrodden or upholding domestic or international obligations," Sophie Richardson of the New York-based advocacy group told Reuters in Hong Kong, speaking of these informal detention centres.
"I think the Obama administration is being tested, it's the first visit to Beijing and I think they're (China) pushing back hard to see just how far they can get, to keep cranking the human rights bar lower, and lower and lower," said Richardson, who oversees Human Rights Watch's work on China.
Obama told Reuters he will press China on human rights during his four-day visit that starts on Sunday. An aide said the topics likely to be raised include religious rights, freedom of expression and restive Tibet. (For more about Chinese human rights and the Obama visit see)
OPERATING UNDER THE RADAR
China denies that such informal jails exist, although local newspapers have also reported on them.
"There are no black jails in China," a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, told a regular news conference on Thursday. "If citizens have complaints and suggestions about government work, they can convey them to the relevant authorities through legitimate and normal channels."
But petitioners told Reuters the detention centres continue operating, but less openly than before, and that many petitioners are now held in informal detention in their hometowns and cities, often in the name of "legal education classes."
"There's been no fundamental change in the operation of black jails, but they have become more hidden and cautious," said Zheng Dajing, a sometime petitioner who now helps other petitioners seeking to have their complaints heard in Beijing.
"This is also a business, and local government pay a lot of money to have them (petitioners) held and taken back home."
China's petitions offices were developed as a safety valve to ease social discontent by giving citizens a channel to complain and giving officials a window into the worries of citizens.
In practice, under China's top-down political hierarchy local officials face intense pressure to staunch the flow of petitioners. A district with many complainants reaching Beijing counts against the promotion prospects of local officials.
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Sanjeev Miglani)

Reuters